Test Ride – French Alps
Scenic valleys, soaring peaks and leg-busting mountain passes in the world’s most celebrated cycling haven
Bikesetc takes on some mighty alpine passes.
WHERE: FRENCH ALPS TOTAL DISTANCE: 114KM/70 MILES TOTAL ELEVATION: 2,800M/9,186FT DIFFICULTY RATING: 9/10
Cycling and France are two words that are so intertwined that you could be forgiven for thinking they invented it! From the Tour de France to the stereotypical onion seller in his striped jersey, it seems the whole country is cycling mad. Not surprising, since France has so many incredible areas for riding, such as Britanny, the Massif Central and the Pyrenees. But standing head and shoulders above the rest, the French Alps is probably the most famous and most visited cycling location in the world. With its high-altitude passes, stunning valleys and great infrastructure – not to mention the locals’ great respect for riders – what better place to try out high-end bikes from three of the biggest names in French bike manufacture? We headed to the beautiful Lake Annecy to hook up with Adrian Hill, founder of Alp Cycles (alpcycles.com), a firm with 10 years experience operating training camps and tours, to take on one of the hardest routes Bikesetc has ever attempted. Also joining us was local ex-pat Brit Kai Wheeler. We asked Adrian to show us big climbs, big views and maybe something a bit different. ‘How about a climb like Alpe d’huez, but double the hairpins?’ he suggested. You might imagine Alpe d’huez has more hairpins than any other climb, given how famous its 21 bends are, but apparently not, and Ade had a real hidden gem of a climb in store for us. Setting off from Doussard at the southern end of Lake Annecy, Adrian led us south on
the Annecy bike path. This is an incredible bit of infrastructure of the kind we don’t see in the UK – wide, clean and flat, and inclusive for riders of all abilities and experience. After a quick and easy 16km, we turn left and cross the highway, towards the first climb of the day. The Col de l’arpettaz is a relatively unknown climb, but those who have ridden it all sing its praises. When Adrian said it was like Alpe d’huez, what he meant was the stats. Both are 15km long and both have 1,150m of climbing, which gives an average of 7.6% gradient; but L’arpettaz features 42 hairpins. It starts easily enough, gradually climbing and meandering through a few villages and through the first hairpins, we tick them off. ‘Two down, 40 to go!’ But it doesn’t take long before we lose count completely, so we’ll have to assume the claimed number is correct. The road ducks into cover beneath the trees for some time, which we welcome as the temperature starts to rise. The trees offer a natural shelter to fend off the heat but there are still a few openings where you get a chance to take in the views. What’s immediately apparent, apart from the hairpins, is how quiet the road is. On a busy weekend in the summer, many alpine climbs would be over-run with cyclists, motorbikes and cars, but the Col de l’arpettaz feels almost deserted, and over the whole climb we encounter just a handful of cars and only three other cyclists. Bliss! As we approach the top and exit the trees, the views are incredible with a clear sky making the higher peaks visible. With a long day ahead, though, we don’t spend too long at the top and start making our way down. The descent is every bit as good as the climb – if not better – with lots of long, sweeping bends. As a former mountain biker Kai is obviously enjoying it, disappearing out of view and making quick work of the hairpins. At the bottom we hit a wider, slightly busier road as we head up the Val d’arly to the town of Flumet, and although we’ve been gradually climbing again for a few kilometres already, this marks the official start of our next climb up to the Col des Aravis – a much more famous climb than l’arpettaz, which first appeared in the Tour in 1911. Initially, the gradient is easy, with some short downhills along the way, so while in total it is 12km in distance, it feels much shorter. The final 7km are all uphill, however, and as the road leaves the final village of La Giettaz the switchbacks begin. When Adrian tells us to stop and look back over our shoulders, we’re treated to perhaps
the most spectacular view on our route, with the overwhelming Mont Blanc looming behind us. The summit of the Aravis is quite different to the Arpettaz, with a few restaurants making it a good refuelling point. The descent from the top on our route is relatively short, dropping through a few hairpins into the edge of the ski resort of La Clusaz, but we’re climbing again very soon, as we start to head up the slopes of the Col de la Croix Fry. Compared to the bigger climbs before it, this seems like just a molehill with a ski resort at the top. The climb might have been short, but the descent is over 10km and is relatively steep with lots of hairpins. Kai once again drops like a stone, showing incredible confidence and ability as we ride towards Thônes. From here we head back towards the start, mostly on easier lanes that avoid the busier main road. A draggy false flat up the Col de Bluffy is the last hard work needed on the route as we drop in to Tallories, which is regarded by many as the most exclusive commune around Lake Annecy. Adrian points us down the hill into the centre for a stop at Basecamp, a relatively new café, bike hire and event company in the village. The coffee and cinnamon roll are superb, and with just a gentle roll around the lake to finish the ride, it is a great spot to stop and reflect on the day we have just shared. The big, famous Cols of the Alps are great, but sometimes it is the little, almost hidden climbs that leave more of a memory. The Col de l’arpettaz is one such climb along a lifeaffirming route that offers both big views and heart-pounding descents. Wow!
It’s a cycling wonderland you can fly to within hours
The Alps have the power to lift you and challenge you like no other mountain range